Sophie Jackson is a dog lover and trainer living in the UK. She competes in agility and obedience with her four dogs.
Around 85% of dogs in the USA and over 80% of dogs in the UK are neutered or spayed, permanently removing their ability to reproduce. The procedure is seen as routine for veterinary surgeons, performed on a weekly basis in many practices.
Spaying refers to the removal of a female dog's reproductive organs, and neutering refers to the removal of a male dog's testicles. Both procedures are performed under a general anaesthetic and require a recovery period as the incisions heal.
Spaying/neutering prevents unwanted pregnancies and has health advantages (such as reducing the risk of mammary cancer in female dogs and eliminating the risk of testicular cancer in male dogs) and these are seen as the main reasons for performing the surgery.
Spaying or neutering for behavioural reasons is controversial. Removing a dog's reproductive abilities does not necessarily calm them down, or reduce aggression towards other dogs. It will however remove their sex drive and eliminate problems associated with it, such as roaming to find a mate.
If you choose to have your dog spayed or neutered, it is important to know how to take the best care of them afterwards to ensure they recover speedily and without complications.
Choosing to Spay or Neuter
Whether you spay or neuter your dog is a personal decision that needs to be made primarily for your pet's wellbeing.
The obvious benefit is that spaying or neutering eliminates the risk of unwanted puppies. In females, this means they no longer come into season or heat every six months, and avoid the complications of pregnancy, which can include requiring a caesarean section to birth the puppies, or even the death of the mother and pups.
In males, it stops them from wandering from home after a female in season. Roaming puts dogs at risk of becoming involved in car accidents, with young male dogs being more likely to be hit by a car than female dogs.
In terms of health, spaying removes the risk of pyometra in female dogs. Pyometra is an infection of the womb as a result of changing hormones during a season or heat. The condition is very serious and requires emergency surgery. Research suggests around 1 in 4 unspayed female dogs will develop pyometra before the age of 10.
Similarly, mammary cancer affects around 1 in 4 unspayed females. The condition is often fatal. Spaying a female reduces the risk of this cancer significantly.
In male dogs, the biggest health concerns are testicular cancer and prostate disease. Around 27% of unneutered males will develop testicular cancer. A 2018 study showed that all unneutered male dogs will develop a condition that causes enlargement of the prostate by the age of 6. This condition is known as Benign Prostatic Hypertrophy (BPH) and can lead to difficulty going to the toilet and infection. Dogs that have problems associated with BPH are often neutered to resolve the problem. BPH is very unlikely to occur in a neutered dog.
What Is involved in Spaying or Neutering a Dog?
Once you have made the decision to spay or neuter your dog, you are likely going to want to know what is involved. Both operations require a general anaesthetic. In females, an incision is made in the abdomen (tummy) and the ovaries and womb are removed. There is also a form of spay called a laparoscopic spay where only the ovaries are removed. This is less common and usually requires a visit to a vet who specialises in this kind of surgery. In males, a small incision is made to remove the testicles.
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As with people, dogs have to be prepped before surgery. It is important a dog has not eaten the morning it has surgery, as the anaesthetic can cause vomiting which is dangerous when the dog is sleepy from the surgery and could choke. They usually are not allowed food at least 14-18 hours before surgery and no water for 12 hours before surgery.
The vet will begin by assessing your dog to ensure they are healthy enough to have the surgery. Sometimes it is advised to have blood tests performed before the operation. If your dog has been suffering from an infectious disease, such as Kennel Cough or a stomach bug, tell your vet as it may be better to postpone the surgery until your dog is fully recovered.
In a female dog, a spay usually occurs between seasons. As most females have a season every six months, the spay is usually timed to fall about three months after her last season, as this is when her hormones are likely to be most settled. Males can be neutered at any time once they have reached maturity.
Before the surgery, the dog will have its belly area shaved and cleaned. This is to make the area as sterile as possible to avoid infection. One of the front legs will also be shaved to allow a needle to be inserted.
After the surgery, your dog will remain with the vet until they are happy they have recovered from the anaesthetic sufficiently to be allowed to go home.
Bringing Them Home
Most dogs will return home the same day as they are spayed or neutered. In rare cases, a complication may require the dog to stay with the vet slightly longer.
When you collect your dog, you will likely find them still drowsy and a little disorientated from the sedation. They should be lifted into a car rather than allowed to jump in.
Your dog will likely want to sleep when they arrive home and it is a good idea to have a quiet, safe place for them to go to. This could be a crate or a comfy bed. They can be offered a little food and water, but they may not be interested in consuming it. This is nothing to worry about and the important thing is to let them rest.
Some dogs may seem restless or cry after an anaesthetic. If it comforts them, you could sit with them, but sometimes they just need time to let the effects wear off. It is important your dog does not jump up on furniture or climb stairs, as this could cause the stitches from the operation to pull apart. If your dog wants to be with you on the sofa or bed, you can lift them on and off, but it is better to encourage them to stay on the floor during recovery.
Your vet may supply you with an Elizabethan collar, inflatable collar, or recovery suit. All these items prevent a dog from licking at its stitches. For the first 24 - 48 hours your dog is going to be out of sorts and will need to rest a lot. Try to get them to drink as this will help flush through the anaesthesia chemicals that remain in the body. You can always add a little goat's milk to water to encourage them to drink.
Any trips outside to the toilet should be on a lead to prevent the dog from running around or getting their stitches dirty. Some dogs may have accidents in the house while recovering from the anaesthetic. If necessary, you can confine a dog to a crate or puppy pen, or put down puppy pads.
The Next Couple of Weeks
While your pup will be quiet for a day or so after their surgery, most will soon begin to feel like themselves again and will want to do their normal everyday things. If you have a naturally busy dog, you will need to try to limit how much activity they do so as to prevent them from pulling out stitches or causing the incision to become inflamed.
Some of the activities it is important your dog avoids doing this stage of recovery include:
- Playing with other dogs
- Running about the house or garden
- Climbing stairs
- Jumping on and off furniture
To keep your dog occupied while they are recovering you can offer them objects to chew on, such as antlers or Kongs filled with their food. If they eat kibble, you could scatter their breakfast on the floor so they have to search for it. You can also buy activity balls that can be filled with treats and the dog has to work out how to get them out. But be aware some of these balls encourage dogs to run around.
After the first couple of days, as long as your dog is recovering well, you should be able to take them out on lead for short five-minute walks. You can do this multiple times a day to give them a break and help them to be calmer. Trips to the local pet shop or other dog friendly shops or cafes will also help to amuse your pup while avoiding too much activity. Mentally stimulating a dog helps to tire them out.
Depending on your vet, you may have a check-up after a week to see how your dog is getting on. They will assess the incision to make sure the stitches are still in place and there is no sign of infection. You can discuss any concerns you might have at this point. Your dog still needs to remain on lead for exercise until you have a final check-up from the vet to remove any remaining stitches. This is usually a fortnight after the surgery.
Your vet will advise you if your dog is ready to return to normal activity. Male dogs usually require a shorter recovery time than female dogs as their surgery is less invasive. Once your vet gives you the all-clear, you can get back to normal, your dog will be able to go for proper walks and will no longer need to be confined.
If you do dog sports with your pup, it is best to wait a while longer before returning to intensive activity. 4-6 weeks recovery time will ensure the incision is fully healed, especially in female dogs.
Cones, Inflatable Collars and Recovery Suits
While your pup is recovering, your vet may advise you to use a device that prevents them from licking at their stitches. There are a variety of items you can choose from to protect your dog.
An Elizabethan collar is the traditional plastic cone we associate with vet visits - sometimes light-heartedly referred to as 'the cone of shame' - These cones fit around the dog's neck and are usually tied in place with a strip of bandage or cloth. Though they are usually effective at stopping dogs lick at their stitches, they are awkward for the dog to wear and may need to be removed when eating or drinking. Noise-sensitive dogs may also be afraid of the sound made when these cones rub against something.
Inflatable or Comfy Collars
An alternative to the plastic Elizabethan collar is a soft collar that is the same cone shape but made of a soft material. This makes it easier for the dog to sleep wearing it, but it is still an awkward size and shape. Inflatable collars are tubular and fit around the dog's neck. When blown up with air, they prevent the dog from reaching around to its surgery site. They are less awkward for the dog to wear, though some dogs may be able to slip out of them.
Recovery suits are relatively new and are becoming a popular choice for spay/neuter surgery. They cover the dog's belly when they are on. Most are fully adjustable with snaps to make them fit correctly.
Female dogs are able to toilet while wearing the suits; male dogs need to have the suit removed when urinating. The suits are also useful for ensuring the incision stays clean and dry, and will prevent any other pets in the household from licking at the stitches.
While spaying and neutering is a routine procedure and the majority of dogs go through it without a problem, there is a slight risk of complications after the surgery. Most of these are easily resolved and are not life-threatening.
Inflammation of the Incision
Sometimes the incision site swells and reddens after surgery, this can be due to a number of reasons including the dog being too active during the recovery period. The swelling usually goes down of its own accord, but if it does not, your vet may prescribe anti-inflammatories. If the incision is hot to the touch, painful to the dog or there is pus oozing out, this suggests an infection and needs to be treated by your vet at once.
Vomiting or Diarrhoea
It is quite normal for a dog to be nauseous after an anaesthetic. They may seem off their food for a day or two and they may have an upset stomach. This is normal as the chemicals from the anaesthesia wear off. If these symptoms persist longer, it is important you consult with your vet.
Infection is uncommon but can occur around the incision site if dirt manages to get into the wound. This is why it is important to prevent the dog from licking at its stitches or getting the incision wet or dirty. If you notice the wound feels hot, or the skin seems taut, or there is pus oozing from it, consult your vet at once.
Stitches Pop Out
It is unusual for the stitches to break but it can occur and in the early stages of healing this could cause the incision to open back up. A dog licking at the stitches is more likely to cause them to break. If the stitches do pop out, you will need to return to the vet for them to be replaced. This will require another anaesthetic and there is a greater potential for the incision to become infected as a consequence.
While it is extremely unusual, occasionally it occurs that a portion of the ovaries is left behind in a female dog. In Lap Spays, where the womb is not removed, this can lead to pyometra—one of the reasons female dogs are spayed in the first place. However, in a traditional spay, the womb is also removed and thus pyometra can never occur.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2022 Sophie Jackson